Yellow Book is guide to Norfolk’s glorious gardens

The National Gardens Scheme, celebrating its 85th anniversary, has launched its famous 'Yellow Book' for Norfolk. MARK NICHOLLS looks at some of the inspiring gardens that will open this summer.

A tea party with home-made cakes, intriguing narrow doors in garden walls with mysteries hidden beyond, croquet on the lawn…and even a young lady called Alice.

They are elements Lewis Carroll may have been amused by, but while this is a garden that may reflect a familiar fantasy story, the location is in rural central Norfolk – an oasis of horticultural beauty in the midst of farmland at Brandon Parva.

The four-acre garden with 70 types of trees, more than 60 types of shrubs and a variety of perennials, belongs to Sue and Simon Guest, who live at the Victorian Old Rectory with their children James, 17, and Alice, 14. It is among dozens that will be open for one precious day this summer across Norfolk as part of the National Gardens Scheme (NGS) initiative, which this year marks its 85th anniversary.

The famous and keenly-awaited NGS 'Yellow Book' for Norfolk – which details all the gardens that will be open this summer – will was officially launched this week at Bradenham Hall near Dereham by author and enthusiastic garden visitor Bill Bryson, who lives in Norfolk and is also the president of the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE).

He said: 'The NGS Norfolk Guide is something I would be happy to support indefinitely. The CPRE is all about encouraging positive things in the countryside and the NGS is as positive as you can get.'

As well as showcasing beautiful gardens, the NGS – which sees 3,700 gardens open nationally – raises money for Macmillan Cancer Support, Marie Curie Cancer Care, Help the Hospices, Crossroads, The Queen's Nursing Institute, the Royal Fund for Gardeners' Children, National Trust (gardeners' careerships) and Perennial, which helps horticulturists in need.

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It will be the fifth time the Guests' garden has been included in the Norfolk 'Yellow Book', with the family having first been inspired to take part after seeing the NGS stand at the Royal Norfolk Show.

Sue, an enthusiastic gardener currently working towards her RHS Level 2 qualification, said: 'Visitors to the Old Rectory will see a large, well-stocked garden with a nice combination of mixed borders, woodland planting and formal lawns and the garden has different gardens within it; there is the lavender garden, the walled garden and the pond garden.

'There is also the element of mystery to the garden and people will wonder what is just around the corner, or what is going on through the narrow doorway.

'We will have a croquet lawn, plant sales and tea and homemade cakes and we want people to come along this summer and share our garden.'

Refreshments for the open day – from 11am-5pm on July 1 – will be made by her family and friends for the 200 visitors expected.

'There is a lot of work for the day but that is part of the enjoyment,' added Sue. 'We love the combination of people coming to the garden and getting pleasure from it and raising money at the same time.'

A few miles away, as the crow flies across Norfolk's open fields, is the garden of Jean and John Walton at Dunbheagan on Dereham Road, Westfield, which bursts out into a blaze of carefully co-ordinated colour in the summer months.

On retirement from the financial services sector the couple moved to their Norfolk bungalow from Essex in January 2006 where the garden, with the early reaches of the River Tud at its rear border, was covered in trees.

'We stripped it all out and started again with a blank canvas,' said Jean. 'We have always been keen gardeners and this was our project for retirement. We did also bring some plants with us from Essex. In fact, we had two removal vans – one for furniture and one for plants.'

Their 1.4-acre garden has herbaceous beds, exotic beds, mixed borders and a display called Heaven and Hell in reference to the type of plants and the contrast of colours found there. Heaven has pastel shades with plants such as Salvia Blue Angel while in the Hell there are fiery colours and Crocosmia Lucifer among others.

They first opened their garden in 2010 after being encouraged to do so by NGS county organiser Fiona Black, however, last year's event was overshadowed with John feeling unwell and later being diagnosed with a subarachnoid haemorrhage which saw him spend a month in Addenbrooke's Hospital, Cambridge. Now recovering, he is again looking forward to receiving visitors to the garden when it opens on August 5 from 12.30-5pm.

With up to 400 visitors expected, St John Ambulance volunteers will provide the tea and cakes with entertainment from the Reepham Ensemble.

Jean said: 'If you are passionate about plants, the pleasure of the National Gardens Scheme is sharing your garden with other people just for that one day. There is a lot of preparation, though it is work we would do anyway and it is a labour of love.'

The National Gardens Scheme started in 1927 with about 700 gardens open for a shilling a time to raise money for the Queen's Nursing Institute to help retired district nurses.

Norfolk's NGS county spokesman Graham Watts said: 'By the 1970s it had expanded with more gardens coming into the scheme and started raising funds for a range of caring charities.

'Nationally, it raises something like �2.6m a year and for Macmillan and Marie Curie and we are the largest donator for those charities.'

If someone wants to open their garden, they are visited by a county NGS representative to see if it is suitable.

They key criteria is for a garden to have at least 45 minutes of interest, explained Graham, who will open his garden with wife Sally in Dereham on July 22.

'The idea is to give people a visitor experience while they enjoy the garden, have a drink and buy some plants,' he added. 'If we feel that a garden is not quite ready, we will work with the owner to advise and encourage them as we are always looking for new gardens. We have about 70 a year open in Norfolk but each year for various reasons we lose about 15 gardens.'

In Norfolk, the open gardens vary from privately-owned through to larger estates such as gardens at Mannington Hall and Oxburgh Hall.

To mark the 85th anniversary, five of the original gardens which opened on the first year in Norfolk in 1927 are going to be open: Wiveton Hall, the old walled garden at Holkham Hall, Blickling, Sandringham and The Pleasaunce at Overstrand. Admission fees vary between �3 and �5 (under 16s are free) and about 84 per cent of monies raised goes directly to charity.

Smaller gardens, within walking distance, can also group together as an NGS attraction.

'In Mileham, for example, there are five gardens all in quite different styles within walking distance. It is �5 to see all five,' said Graham. 'Individually, the gardens may not have enough interest for 45 minutes but collectively they make a very interesting visit.'

For Graham and Sally, who both lost their mothers to cancer, the scheme is a chance to support charities that helped as well as having the pleasure of showcasing their garden. Last year, they had 550 visitors.

Graham, who had his career managing public parks, added: 'The scheme is also an opportunity to walk around a garden, talk to the gardeners – who are generally generous with their time and advice - and for people to get some ideas for their own gardens.

'The feedback we get is that visitors like the atmosphere and pick up knowledge from other visitors as well as just looking at a nice flower border or a vegetable garden.'

In 2011, 67 gardens opened in Norfolk – the majority between May and September - attracting more than 15,000 people with �65,000 raised.

The 2012 gardens are all included in the free 'Yellow Book' with a photograph, brief details, location and opening times. It is available from tourist information centres, libraries, Evening News offices, nurseries and garden centres, with 60,000 are distributed across the county.

For gardening enthusiasts, and those who simply enjoy the beauty of plants, the National Gardens Scheme is a great opportunity to enjoy Norfolk's gardens, pick up a few ideas and raise money for charity at the same time. It's also a perfect way to spend a Sunday afternoon this summer.

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Although the bulk of gardens open for the National Gardens Scheme will naturally be in the summer months, the scheme gets under way much earlier. The reason? Snowdrops, of course.

The NGS in Norfolk has four gardens opening in February and early March where you can see snowdrops at their best.

On February 18 Horstead House at Horstead, which has woodland edge walks with oodles of snowdrops to see, opens its doors.

The following day you can admire the flowers at Bagthorpe Hall, Bagthorpe, near Fakenham, which has a marvellous woodland walk carpeted with snowdrops.

Then on March 1 and 4 Chestnut Farm at West Beckham, near Holt, you can enjoy more than 70 varieties of snowdrops close up through walks and borders.